Book #32: From Hell

Although Watchmen (especially in light of the film) gets the most attention from the public, I think I've come to the conclusion that From Hell is the defining work of Alan Moore's career thus far.

A massive, sprawling epic, From Hell is Moore's attempt to unravel the mystery and motivations behind the notorious Jack the Ripper slayings in Whitechapel and the surrounding destitute areas of London in 1888 - a mystery that to this day has its share of theories but no clear solution. Divided into 16 chapters, Moore weaves a byzantine plot involving secret societies, the Elephant Man, an illegitimate heir and the Royal Family, wrapping it in a complex and lurid look into the history of London during the time. Moore and artist Eddie Campbell dug into tons of history, researching police reports, conspiracy theories and books on the subject, as well as the historical documentation on what London was like in the late 19th century in an effort to make everything as realistic, as tangible, as possible.

A lot of the credit for this realism goes to Campbell's incredible pencils. At first look, the art seems to very coarse, relying less on detail and more on getting the grimy feel of the city in every line. But once you get used to the style, it opens up to reveal a level of detail that's astounding, and this style subtly changes throughout the novel to meet the needs of the whatever emotion Moore is trying to evoke in each scene.

You'll notice I used the word "novel" to describe From Hell. Although it was published as a serial comic (ha! get it - serial comic? It's like serial killer! I'm so tired...), make no mistake - this is a novel in the truest sense of the word. Moore's excellence in the comic field has always stemmed from his ability to narrate a story in a way that on paper should never work for a comic, yet always does. From Hell engages many of Moore's passions: magic, the nature of time, the role of religion, class feels (though never reads) like a scholarly paper on everything Moore has tried into integrate into his previous work.

Everyone (reading this, anyway) probably knows a little bit about Jack the Ripper: a mysterious serial killer sliced up a number of prostitutes with almost surgical precision, and played a cat-and-mouse game with the law enforcement (the title "From Hell" came from the signature line of one of the killer's messages to the police). I don't want to comment too much on the plot - if you've seen the very loose adaptation of the film made by the Hughes Brothers and starring Johhney Depp, you know a little of what the story entails. But Moore's version doesn't play at all like a whodunit; Moore introduces us to the killer early on in the book. But knowing who the killer is only makes the process of his evolution into the myth all the more thrilling.

On all fronts a massive achievement. If Watchmen is the (arguably) definitive word on the deconstruction of the superhero comic, From Hell feels like the definitive work on Alan Moore, encapsulating everything that has made him the towering figure in comics he has come to be.